Boeing 747-The Plane That Changed the World
By Frances Leonard
The year 1969 was an exciting time for American travel. It marked the landing of the first man on the moon, and the first flight of Boeing’s 747 jumbo-jet. While not Boeing’s first model, the 747 is the most well-known for being the first majorly successful wide-body commercial aircraft. The Boeing 747 reflects an important milestone of human-environment interaction in America in which the way, and reasons, people traveled changed. This change in travel resulted in a movement of both natural resources and people. These factors are illustrative of the Anthropocene in that they mark a shift from the biological old regime to fossil capitalism, are reminiscent of the Columbian exchange, and indicate a naturalist narrative describing how people are approaching these changes.
To understand the effect the 747 has had on the world, we must first understand its origins. The 747 was the product of Seattle-based company Boeing, that first flew in 1970.Boeing’s innovative gamble of creating the jumbo jet intended to satisfy the growing volume of international travelers. 747s have the ability to seat 390-500 passengers, making them the largest (and fastest) jet of their time. Today, Boeing claims to own 90% of the worlds aircrafts, making it one of the most influential companies of the century.
The use of the final 747 product has contributed to environmental changes in the form of relocating C02 in the atmosphere, animal species out of their habitats, and noxious gases and radiation where humans are vulnerable to its effects. A 747’s efficiency depends on number of passengers, and length of flight (since a large quantity of fuel is used during takeoff). For this reason, research indicates air travel is up to 15 times worse than automobiles in terms of pollution. Furthermore, planes release fumes directly into the upper portion of the atmosphere, which causes more damage. While the Clean Air Act of 1970 attempted to promote cleaner vehicles, studies show CO2 emissions have increased 1.5 times in only a decade, and the increase in air transportation is a likely contributor.
Fuel emissions are not the only way 747s have left their mark on the environment. Firstly, 747 engines have been known to ingest flocks of migrating geese, killing several hundred members of flocks. It’s become such a problem that measures have been taken to alter the area surrounding airports to make them less attractive to birds. This is a classic example of the Anthropocene in which humans are shaping animals’ habitats to fit their needs, rather than adjusting their operations around the animals’ needs. Another instance of environmental disruption is how landscapes where other animal species reside are constantly modified to accommodate the gargantuan factories for assembly the 747 requires. In 2012, an already cumbersome 60k square foot center in Seattle was replaced with a 180k square foot delivery center.
Another issue with the use of 747s is the risk of toxic exposure to both civilians and workers. Depleted uranium, which contains over half the radioactivity as natural uranium, is used as counterweights in aircrafts like the 747. Fifteen thousand depleted uranium weights are believed to belong to the Boeing fleet. This puts aircraft workers at risk of exposure during installation, and firemen at risk after accidents. In one specific case, a 747 crashed into a residential neighborhood in Amsterdam in 1992. It contained 425 kg of depleted uranium weights, and there was widespread panic concerning the effects of exposure, so much so that a study was conducted and found the 1736 workers and 339 residents involved were suffering from increased psychological stress. Yet another risk for individuals aboard a 747 is that of exposure to cosmic radiation. A pattern has emerged of increased rates of airline crews diagnosed with various forms of cancer. There was a statistically significant risk of melanoma and breast cancer in women, and skin cancer in men. Interestingly enough, those employed after 1971 displayed the highest risk, which coincides with the debut of the 747 since it flies at higher altitudes than earlier models. A separate study revealed workers were at severe risk of over-exposure to methylene chloride and phenol during a paint-stripping process. Methylene chloride is a potential carcinogen, and with stripping of a plane taking up to seventy-two hours and workers lacking protective equipment, exposure levels were unsurprisingly found to be over the maximum level imposed by the French limit.
The second realm in which the 747 exemplifies the human-environment relationship is that of social relationships between the western world, and “third world countries”. With the creation of the 747 came an extreme increase in tourism. Before air travel, humans depended on boats and train, which excluded many individuals from traveling for leisure due to price, and time. Once air travel was commercialized, then became cheaper and more convenient, the number of Americans vacationing overseas doubled. This tourism is harmful first and foremost because at the end of the day air transportation tends to be more of a luxury than a necessity, meaning emissions are released into the atmosphere for no dire reason. Secondly, tourism advertises the beautiful locations of exotic destinations whilst concealing the extreme poverty and political oppression many natives of these countries face. For instance, a particular travel writer in Curacao praised the resort, yet completely glossed over the riots occurring there at the time of their stay. While some believe tourism revenue improves the lives of the poor, they ignore the fact that majority of said revenue goes to the rich minorities. Haiti’s dictator Francois Duvalier is essentially funded by the country’s tourism profits. 80% of tourism money goes back into developed countries, and only 20% goes to underdeveloped countries. Travel companies encourage these deceitful advertisements by incentivizing journalists to only write about the “approved” aspects of destinations, because westerners desire to see “exotic”, glamorous, destinations and return feeling cultured without experiencing the depressing realities of the destination. However, some repercussions of tourism cannot be so easily hidden. The 747 has made international travel far more accessible, yet it has also facilitated the spread of epidemics such as malaria. This causes major concern for organizations such as WHO, that are fighting not only to eradicate diseases, but do so while dealing with the risk of it spreading among continents. The fear of spreading epidemics is understandable considering the havoc wreaked by the Columbian exchange that caused the Great Dying. Essentially, tourism is a complicated relationship between income and resources that can result in several different scenarios. Either economic benefit for the powerful, or environmental benefits for all can win. To balance the interests of all the players in the tourist industry is no easy feat. This debate calls for a weighing of cost-benefit where environment is considered and not just taken for granted as a constant resource, and the native peoples of tourist destinations have their well-being prioritized .
Now that the 747’s involvement in human-environment interactions has been established, we must consider how these interactions are indicative of the Anthropocene. What the 747’s business endeavors overseas indicate is a transition from the biological old regime described by Marks, to a fossil economy described by Malm. Rather than the economy being agriculturally based, it is dependent on manufacturing. To make manufacturing possible, and to power the products made (such as the 747), fossil fuels are required. A second connection to the Anthropocene is the fact that the tourism industry is reminiscent of the Columbian exchange in that 747s have increased the transaction of disease, commodities, and culture between the western world and “new worlds”. These transactions are often more favorable to westerners, while negatively impacting the natives. Lastly, the 747 and its future can be looked at through the lens of either two of Bonneuil’s narratives. The Eco-Marxist narrative is applicable since powerful white capitalists are those benefitting from the business Boeing does, yet the effects of the 747s on the environment are borne by everyone. Another narrative that can be used to describe the 747 is the naturalist narrative, since courses of action prescribed by experts tend to share a common theme of using scientific methods to “fix” the problem the 747 has created. In 2008, the EU passed EU ETS which holds airlines accountable for paying a carbon tax according to their emissions. Since clearly airlines care a lot about money, this could be a productive way to incentivize decreasing emissions, but it won’t do much to repair existing damage. Another suggestion is improving the fuel economy and switching to lower fossil carbon fuel. Again, great idea, but this will take time, and have little retroactive effects. A final ingenious suggestion was lessening the emphasis on GDP growth; interestingly, the author lacked a plan of how exactly this would be enforced.
In conclusion, the Boeing 747 has forever altered the Anthropocene through its movement of production, natural resources, and people. As the environmental effects of these phenomena accumulate, decisions must be made in regards to how air transportation moves forward. Shall we sacrifice business for the environment, or vice versa? Only time will tell.
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